6/20/04

Croaking with the Frogs

Last time I was in California I was invited to sit in with a group of musically avant garde frogs in a moonlit , estuarial grotto a few yards from the sea at San Luis Obispo. Although my jazz credentials do not compare with those of Dave Brubeck, I believe that if a musical committee had witnessed this event, I would today be an honorary frog.

Most of the following verbiage was written a couple of years ago with the vague purpose of arriving at a vivid description of this amphibian outreach report, which would tie together all the preceding stuff in an insightful and impactful way. I have begun to suspect that my intention was not very clear, and now doubt that it can be packaged up so tidily. So if you were hoping for something in here about frogs at San Luis Obispo, you will be disappointed.

Some of this, when I look at it, is not a bad read. Whoever puts this material on my computer gave it the present title, so I guess I'll keep it for now. Maybe I'll add to it in time, since it seems to be a collection of pieces more or less about animals, exhumed from the digital catacombs, dealing with the usual themes.

*****

I have crib memories.

These images are preserved internally. They have not been jumbled by the outer world. They are true recollections, reiterated through time without much change or shift of interpretation, like the ritual Mass, changeless across the trendy ages. I remember them purely because they actually happened.

I sleep in my hot, urine-soaked crib, in the same room with my parents. A small number of things constitute my reality. These are my first memories. I don't remember breast or bottle feeding. I remember spitting up pabulum, and having to eat it twice. I remember the ceiling, the grainy darkness. I remember Encephalitis.

They still make them, because children require them: cuddly, amorphous, floppy-eared, loosely-stuffed, sleepy-eyed teddy dogs. Encephalitis was made of soft yellowish-white fake lambskin stuffed with cotton batting, designed to be repeatedly soaked with kid piss and laundered back to freshness with
the blankets and flannel pjs. Being less than two, I did not name my oldest and closest friend. My father did the naming at our house, and because he was a doctor the dog's name was Encephalitis. I was not aware until years later that my stuffed animal was named after a brain disease. To this day Encephalitis seems to me like it must be a sort of cuddly affliction.

As I grow older I become more alarmed at the possibility that I might forget, or worse, re-remember my experiences. It has become important that my recollection of my own life have some correspondence to my life as it actually was. And I am not at all assured that such a connection in fact exists, or needs to exist. Most of the time we have no reason to question our memories. But my adult brain seeks reasons to doubt whether the crib memory of the night Encephalitis spoke to me is to be trusted.

The speech of stuffed animals is different from normal human speech, and therefore does not find ways to stay in the memory. What gives meaning to such an event is that a stuffed animal should choose to speak to us at all, however unintelligibly. I don't know what it was that Encephalitis said, and I can not say with certainty whether I understood him at the time.

I don't know how old I was. I was in a crib. I spoke a little English. I knew the difference between dreams and reality. When Encephalitis spoke to me, I knew I was not dreaming. I knew that stuffed dogs were not really alive, and that they were not supposed to talk. It was, even for one as young as I, a preternatural event. I stood up and woke my parents, the people in charge of maintaining consistency in my reality. Without hesitation I ratted out my crib dog. "Encephalitis talked," I reported.

From far across the dark bedroom, a vast gulf of size and perspective and importance, came the response: "It was just a dream." (It was not a dream.) "Go back to sleep." (I was not sleeping.) (I knew this.) I knew this, and they had no way of knowing it. In a small epiphany I grasped an important fact. Mom and dad are out of the loop, reality-wise.

One day, instead of laundering Encephalitis, my parents threw him away. The first death in my life was also the first murder. An intimate murder, all in the close family. Inspector Michael confronted the suspects: "Where is Encephalitis?" "You don't need him any more," they informed me. "You're too old." "But where? In the garbage? In the furnace?" "It's just a doll."

*****

I understand animism. I recognise the magical voice that speaks through animals and other creatures, for it has spoken to me. To the extent that they deny the personhood of animals, the religions of the world lose credibility for me. How can one claim to have divined the wellsprings of life and yet have failed to observe this obvious fact? How can one man understand that the thought which gives him presence is the guarantor of his existence, and simultaneously go about vivisecting dogs to prove that soul is exclusive to alienated man? How can we love God and shoot ducks for sport? God, the voice of sustaining love that whispers meaning into every life, is barely accessible to modern man. Rats are dearer, sparrows vastly more kindred, to their solicitous maker than the general run of salesmen and yahoos. Here is where the gulf lies, not between proud, angelic man and the lower beasts, but between proud man and the family of Eden, God and the bunnies.

Deprived of a material body, the voice of Encephalitis retreated into my dreams. I do not remember much of those days. We lived in a stone house behind the children's hospital, across the street from a playground. Plank swings hung from heavy iron chains with elongated links. A rotating platform of some kind groaned and creaked in heavy circles, and provided us with metal pipe structures to hang onto, designed I suppose, to give us expertise in jumping onto moving trains. A lethal teeter totter once split my lower lip when the kid on the other end unexpectedly jumped off, requiring several stitches and traumatizing my poor mother with the bloody horror of it all. My friends, so to speak, were the Burner boys, sons of the hospital janitor. I remember nothing about them except their hair, which was like uncombable straw. I remember snow and sparse lawns, some fear of the outer world, some aversion to its bleakness. The best part of life was my bed, my piss-warm, flannel blanketed sanctorum, and the squeaky-voiced, friendly animals who spoke to me in my dreams, saying things that were poignantly meaningful and utterly unrememberable.

We moved to a duplex on Hauser street. The landlady's kid, Chuck, in collusion with an older neighbor kid named Dick Smith, shot a robin in our back yard one afternoon with a beebee gun. Gathered in fascination (which I later observed many times in adolescent squirrel hunters) around the dying bird, they poked at it, watching the thick, hot blood bubble from the wounds in its russet breast, filled with the bravado and brash cruelty they would later need as hunters and soldiers in the city of death. I ran to my mother, in the frantic hope that the bird might yet be saved, that it might be fixed by a doctor. Yeah, well... time to get tough. I started school on Hauser street. The baffling social structure of first grade was partially redeemed by Mrs. Blyler's hamsters, although they never spoke to me. I fell hopelessly in love with certain girls. I encountered my first rivals.

Carl Jung had much to say about early sexuality. I think that a reading of Jung in first grade would have given us a much better handle on life than Dick and Jane. There is inside of us (little boys), according to this Freudian spinoff, a female presence, the female half from which our maleness was sundered, who speaks to us mainly in dreams, but also in other ways. What makes her appearances so numinous, so charged with erotic magic, is the promise of this sexual complementarity, the presence of a wholeness half remembered, a lost mother, an unmanifest lover. It is always she who speaks, when we are very small, through the crib animals who are our only intimates, or dream creatures. Later she assumes other personae - a sorceress, a fantasy girlfriend, Glenda the Good Witch. The genius of Disney, in the 1940's, was to draw these themes, these archetypes, from the sleeping brains of children into a hybrid world neither inner nor outer where animals talk and angels intervene and wishes come true.

The reality principle kicks in when we try to project this blithering idiocy onto some third-grade candy striper. When the pursuit of wonderment is eclipsed on all sides by competitive sports. Most accept it, practice their "falling dead" for make-believe gunfight games, or joining in the after-school posse that chased poor incontinent Frank Tocar home every day until his parents moved someplace new. Lord of the Flies.

I was chased home from school quite a bit myself in those days. The runtiness of which I had been earlier unaware loomed into consciousness, presenting itself as a natural explanation for the unbroken succession of rejections that followed my early romantic overtures. Edrie Lou Parker, who many years later was chosen Cherry Blossom Queen in some northern Montana beauty pageant, trampled my heart by announcing that her intended boyfriend was Frank Miracle, a tall, dark-eyed, brilliant fellow with whom I did not compare. Giving up on five-star divas, I moved along to three and two-star contenders, more in the "acceptable" range, and was predictably upstaged by guys who were smarter, more assertive, more attractive, more athletic, taller than me, until the number of male classmates with whom I could not compete included everyone except Everett White (smaller than me and almost completely stupid) and Johnny Tucker (smaller than me, wracked with psoriasis and unable to breathe due to severe asthma.) Everett finally threatened to beat me up in order to provide himself with at least one soul beneath his contempt, and Johnny Tucker hanged himself one Christmas Eve, leaving behind his respiratory problem and bequeathing to me the unappealable ignominy of the absolute bottom of the pecking order. My self-image collapsed into a kind of wretched defeatism. I began to stutter and withdraw into an isolated condition, which I suppose is why I caught the attention of bullies.

Thanks to bullies, young people who are solitary for one reason or another are introduced to the experience of fear. People form societies primarily for protection from a nasty and ubiquitous subspecies of humanity generally disposed to hammer the shit out of anybody at all who appears to be without allies or deterrent capability. My house was exactly eight blocks from Hawthorne Elementary School, two uphill, two level and four downhill. The two uphill blocks, due to my unmoderated getaway speed, took most of my wind away. By the time I reached the downhill part I had a bad stitch in my side, but given a proper mix of terror and momentum I was usually able make it home safely.

There must have been a half dozen bullies, who took turns making my childhood into a gut-wrenching trauma. I still remember their names. J.B. McCabe (and his leering little brother Dennis), Spike Moe, Jerry Herney, Sonny Olson, Jerry Dunlap (a fat, acne-scarred loser too dumb to act alone, but dangerous as a sidekick) and the Stuart Street gang including Jimmy Child, Lyle Bompart and their shadowy and rarely glimpsed kingpin, Eddie Gallivan, who looked like Al Capone. The Stuart Street people were armed with beebee guns, with which they actually shot you.

I couldn't tell you how the wholesome and picturesque community of Helena, Montana in the mid-nineteen forties appeared to the City Fathers or to the PTA or to our parents and would-be protectors, but to a skinny, stammering, desocialized 11 year old it was a lawless wasteland of unrestrained violence and brigandery in which remaining unbloodied depended on careful planning, skillful concealment and rabbitlike bursts of speed.

I was probably twelve or thirteen when I made an important discovery that set me free from most future predation. It was four fifteen in the afternoon, and I was in the first downhill block of an otherwise normal chasse d'aprés midi by Jerry Herney, who lived three or four blocks beyond my house and was going my way anyhow. He was wearing steel-toed stomper boots, and he was about thirty feet behind me, bearing down on me like some dreadful robotic nightmare. The stitch in my side was unbearable, aggravated by the pounding of my feet against the concrete sidewalk. I realized I was not going to make it the remaining three blocks. I was toast. I decided I might as well give up and get the inevitable beating up over with. So I stopped and turned around, like those mice in your headlights that finally quit scurrying back and forth and just wait for you to run on over them. It was then that the miracle happened.

Jerry Herney thought I had decided to fight him. As he perceived it, I had stopped out of a sudden resolve to take the offensive, a surfeit of rage, a surge of volcanic retribution, to revenge myself at once for all current and past abuses. The steel clogs on his terrible boots shot out a spray of sparks as he screeched to a surprised halt. I was, of course, as surprised as he was. It was not until two seconds later, when he turned and began running away from me, that I grasped what had happened. The stitch vanished. My wind returned. I chased his terrified ass the rest of the way to my house, past my house, all the way to his house and down his sidewalk until he made it inside his front door, hollering for his mama.

That event took place over a half century ago, and the liberating lesson of it has never left me. We are all afraid. The power of terror belongs to everyone. The ability to strike or injure someone need never be proven. All that is ever needed in baboon society is to bare ones fangs and hurl excrement.

*****

The Speech of Birds

Lucille speaks in hollers, gurgles, threatening moans and a little bit of English. I, on the other hand, speak several parrot dialects in addition to English. I’m quite a bit smarter than she is. Because she perceives that I extend myself to her linguistically like some obsequious immigrant, she believes herself to be the bitch-goddess of this household. She might be just that. I haven’t ruled it out. Dumbness, said Jules Pfeiffer, is power.

Bugsy doesn’t know any English, but has mastered an extensive range of shrieks and whimpers to express his complex array of moods, to wit: extreme irritation, stark terror, total joy, total outrage, minor irritation, and utter contentment. He can scream nonstop for three hours or more without getting a sore throat. There is no rational middle ground for this creature. Bugsy is a pain in the ass. His heart is on fire.

Parrot talk is the language of love and aggression and worry, an emotional soundtrack, as rich as the substrate of any human language, to which we add only stories, gossip and columns of figures. Parrots, as it turns out, are also capable of recognizing and naming abstractions, but find it tiring and, apart from the attraction of the social activity it provides, a little boring. Dr. Pepperberg’s famous parrot, Alex, knows hundreds of words for objects, colors and shapes, and can answer questions or ask for things in brief but parseable English sentences. He frequently asks to be allowed a different activity. Talking birds don’t have trouble with our grammar or our syntax or pronunciation. It’s our subject matter that they don’t understand.

The birds and I speak in whistles just after dark. The whistles mean: “I am here, and this is how I am.” They are subtle, quiet, full of nuance and thus rich variety. They are dialogs, that is, they solicit a response and become a clear conversation with a theme and a direction. I can not believe, when I am involved in this musical speech, that birds do not do this together in the wild. And if a creature is moved to declare its existence and make public its feelings, whether or not there is any survival-related reason for doing this, it must simultaneously expect a sympathetic listener. If birds demand solicitude - attention, sympathy, good will, comfort, love - then surely they themselves understand and possess the ability to give these things to one another. I suspect that the symphonic levels of communication inside a flock of birds would amaze us. It would baffle and humble us.

I saw a flock of martins on television the other day. In the early evening, somewhere in the American southland, they begin to gather together into groups of twenty or thirty to fly from tree to tree in cloud-shaped parcels. The flock gets bigger and bigger, until there are thousands upon thousands of them and the perimeters of the whole collective spans a volume bigger than four circus tents. To stand far enough back to see the whole thing, you can no longer distinguish individual martins. They become specks in a churning hallucination in the twilight sky, halftone dots in a movie about gigantic stingrays and spiralling, transparent whales. Constantly transforming itself from one turgid ghost to another, this huge thing astonishingly lifts up off from the earth, levitating into the air like a balloon before changing itself into a tornado and then a half-mile-long curley-roni.

The birds did this for a long time. They weren’t feeding or going anywhere. The flock just dived up and around and back and forth, turning into an effortless parade of Brobdingnagian apparitions, organic, morphologically unified, cellular, volumetric inventions, one after another, frolicing hugely overhead. I tried to pick out a particular bird, or a part of the smoky mass where a particular bird would be if I could distinguish one. I followed it trying to imagine what kind of diagram would be required to coordinate even a simple tumble. If those birds were the Iowa State University Marching Band, every member would have a set of instructions for the entire performance, consisting of a series of elegant, contiguous geometric curves which, if performed in perfect concert with tens of thousands of adjacent trajectories, would produce an apparently endless series of living, giant fishlike monsters in the sky.

The marching band template, of course, breaks down with such multitudes. The birds possess no instructions about how to do these things, each being nothing more than a ditzy martin full of bugs and going along with the crowd. They are ad-libbing. Doing jazz. An impromptu harmonization of tiny souls jamming into an unambiguous unity, beginning to exhibit the primitive morphology of the next magnitude of things.

Depending on your point of view, those big shadowy Mardi Gras balloons might be realer than the birds.

*****

Deer

“Perhaps,” the PBS narrator said, near the end of a film clip in which one of a group of feeding deer in a meadow is dropped by a distant, high powered rifle, falling dead into the grass while his companions continue to browse unconcerned... “Perhaps deer just don’t understand death.”

It seems to be true that animals, while wary of predators and apparently hard-wired to the fight or flight response, do not reflect upon, brood over or permit to permeate every nook and cranny of their psychological and social lives, the horror of nonexistence to which cognitively advanced creatures such as ourselves have attained. The assumption the narrator makes is that it takes a pretty smart cookie to recognize ones personal death as a stroke of bad luck. Even though every scrap of organic matter since the beginning of time has come and gone, living its days in a ubiquitous finitude common to plants and animals alike, it is only now, with the miraculous advent of a few microns of cerebral cortex, that living things have grasped the dirty trick mother nature has squirreled away in our travel bags. For unicellular creatures, lacking even rudimentary brains, the travail of mitosis is no different from the travail of necrosis. But here at the summit of evolution we can see that to be born, to find ourselves conscious and kinetic in a growing parcel of animated meat, is a wonderful thing, whereas to become atrophied or otherwise incapable of sustaining vital function so that we lose the vehicles by which we present ourselves into the world and thus disappear into graves is more like a catastrophe. Bambi wasn”t clever enough to figure it out, but Joseph Conrad was.

This view of things, I think, presupposes a bizarre state of affairs in which human brains pop into the world by some combination of accident and blind adaptation, developing finally the ability to secrete or otherwise generate recursive consciousness, to become meat that has ideas and knows that it has ideas. Meat that has become intelligent and has consequently fallen victim to the pitfalls of intelligence, among these the illusion of central position by which intelligence surveys the world and, seeing there reflections of its own rationality, believes the world itself to be either intelligent or the product of intelligence. Meat which perceives a world of rational causes and which invents a rational God to explain it all. The essential self or soul of such a deluded creature is also an illusion which, at the end of the pizza party of life, gives way to natural oblivion. Understanding this, as Schopenhauer did, you can bet that when we are feeding at Arby’s and some disgruntled ungulate starts shooting us off our plastic stools, we get the hell out of there. Because we understand death.

Let’s look at this another way. What if the world is analogous to a building, which can be said to exist by reason of its bricks and mortar, or by reason of its blueprints, the mind and will of its architect, its financier and its tradesmen. No building exists without a specific prior thought, and although (as of this writing) you also have to have bricks to get the thing to show up, the idea of a building can be implemented with just about any available materials. And no pile of bricks ever concatenated itself into a building without the assistance of rational intelligence. Nor do schools of neurons spontaneously congregate into swarms and become brains. The intelligence which brains both manifest and perceive in the world is also what you have to have to produce a brain to begin with. Intelligence here is Alpha and Omega, the “cosmic soup” if you will, and if the “argument” is circular there is at least no blind assumption to compare with that of modern empiricism. It is easier to imagine the brain as bit of temporary materiality, a cosmic meatball, in an ambient continuum of pure intelligence, than to imagine the creative intelligence by which things are brought into existence as a sort of gas given off by certain accidental arrangements of the things themselves. Circularity aside, meatballs float in soup, soup does not float in meatballs.

If intelligence is not a vaporous exudate of our brains, then it is not improper to think of it as ambient, surrounding us in space and time, in fact pre-existing us both logically and causally, and authoring us as rational creatures.

The brain is a physical device that processes intelligence. It is created and maintained by intelligence, and when it looks around it perceives, through intelligent filters, other physical devices which are likewise created and maintained by intelligence. To get beyond the messy soup & meatballs analogy, we are like schooners whose sails are inventions of the wind, made to catch the wind. The bigger the sails, the more wind they can hold.

Not to mislead: intelligence is without size or magnitude of any kind. It is not quantifiable like wind. It is likely, as the Greeks said, simply One, yet One in which we can participate to varying degrees depending not on its availability (which is always the same) but on our capacity to receive it.

Everything which is intelligent, (everything of which we are aware), captures intelligence in its own way. Shrubberies do it without brains, as do crystals which make themselves into displays of pure arithmetic with no organic mediation at all. Our own way of capturing intelligence, i.e. huge brains, is of course seen by us to be the grandest and most elegant way there could possibly be. I live with three parrots, all of whom also believe that if you aren’t a parrot there is something the matter with you. If man is a protein that intuits God, he is also a protein that believes himself to own other proteins, as well as parcels of dirt and patent rights on certain DNA configurations. Like a ship with too many sails, our brains pay a price for gathering much wind. We are bedeviled by illusions. We invent new complexities to cancel the evil effects of earlier complexities. We become, inevitably, the supremely intelligent, angelic, vicious, anxiety-ridden, neurotic children of God you would expect, given the way we are configured.

Maybe evolution is exactly backwards from what we think. Maybe they start us out with giant brains, since we are so hopelessly inefficient at receiving and returning the state of love which lies around us. Maybe as we mature and become more perfect we stop hoarding rocks and vegetables and abandon our delusions of proprietorship. Maybe, as we approach the level of deer, we lose our fear of death. And finally, if we persevere through many eons, we find ourselves in tiny grottos miles underground, shining forth as six-sided bits of glass.

*****